The Possibility of an Island — Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is not a “good” writer in the way someone like Nabokov, Ann Patchett, Elmore Leonard, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, or countless others whose sentences sing, metaphors work, and who make one stop to save the rightness of their description. But Houellebecq is a different, unusual, or unique writer: he sounds like no one else I’ve read. He’s prone to writing like a nonfiction writer (“Undoubtedly there used to be a form of demotic happiness, connected to the functioning whole, which we are no longer able to understand”), a nonfiction writer who shifts suddenly into overly pornographic registers (“Women give an impression of eternity, as though their pussy were connected to mysteries—as though it were a tunnel opening onto the essence of the world, when in fact it is just a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair”), or a more conventional writer (“Fortunately Harry intervened, and the conversation was raised to more transcendent subjects (the stars, infinity, etc.), which allowed me to tuck into my plate of sausages without trembling”). To “tuck into my plate of sausages” is so normal in a book—The Possibility of an Island—so weird.

If you’ve read one or two thrillers you’ve probably read most thrillers; if you’ve read one competently but boringly written commercial novel you’ve read most of them; if you’ve read 50 Shades of Grey you should be ashamed because there’s much better verbal pornography available. But Houellebecq sounds like himself, and his concerns are almost random-seeming (sexuality, contemporary consumerism, philosophy, history) yet they drive me, and I suspect others, to try to figure out what braids them. Story is one possible answer, though it is a bad one and there are others.

Being unique without exactly being good still counts. Too many “good” writers do MFA-approved stuff taken from the Francine Prose and James Wood handbooks. I don’t want to knock that style—arguably I’m doing it at times—but it is a distinctive style (almost like the New Yorker’s) and school and if you read enough lit fic or better commercial fic you’ll recognize it and start to categorize it and start to use annoying abbreviations like “fic.”

I suspect that readers who don’t reject Houellebecq outright for reasons or psychological or moral outrage may worry: what if he does describe the world? That’s why he’s morally outrageous. What if his low-affect, high-description, no-content view of the universe is right? It’s unsettling, and for that reason he may be a bad signal: say you like Houellebecq and you’re saying there may be something amiss in you. I don’t fully buy the Houellebecq worldview—too much sunny American in me, I guess, and too tight an affinity with a Zero to One worldview—but I could probably ape or paraphrase it if need be: everything comes down to material conditions; the spiritual is dead; we’re either monsters of desire or we’re standing novelistically outside it, smoking a cigarette, and commenting on it.

I wish more MFA types would read Houellebecq, and read him with care. But he’s not a writer likely to be politically palatable to university types or to contemporary mores (which is also why I suspect he has a higher chance of enduring when today’s New York Times-approved hot author is forgotten).

In an odd way parts of Houellebecq feel like Elena Ferrante, another European export who in terms of content is the opposite of Houellebecq, and yet one senses that they’re both writing about the same currents and social conditions through fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction. He fascinates instead of bores.

I don’t claim to understand Houellebecq and very few writers do. The best and most convincing reading of his work I’ve encountered is Adam Gopnik’s “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire,” which views Houellebecq as nostalgic for the late ’50s and early ’60s. This seems odd to me—I view the present as better than the past and the future likely to be better than the present—but I wonder if my view is the minority one. Houellebecq’s future island is not a good one. He uses the pessimistic strands of SF in Island and The Elementary Particles. I like optimists.

The race to the bottom of victimhood and “social justice” culture

In “A Different Kind of Diversity Fear” Matthew Reed writes of a junior professor who

mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity. Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I’ve witnessed similar things in schools where I’ve taught, and this is happening because the diversity coalition is, weirdly, eating its own supporters. At Seliger + Associates we see related challenges in grant writing and wrote about a particular instance in “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.” The story at the link is hilarious and demonstrates the dangers of saying almost anything about diversity or related matters, since the line between cultural sensitivity and cultural insensitivity barely exists and moves constantly, without warning.

It’s virtually impossible for people, even well-meaning people sympathetic to the social justice worldview, to know whether they’re saying the right thing or the wrong thing about diversity, inclusion, or related matters. Inadvertently saying the wrong thing means being accused of insensitivity—or worse (Scott Alexander touches similar themes in “Radicalizing the Romanceless“). People who are actively trying to be sensitive can’t predict whether they’ll be accused of being insensitive.

Jonathan Haidt has also written about the dangers of victim culture, in “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account” and “The Yale Problem Begins in High School:”

Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.

Victimhood culture has also taken root in universities. It isn’t a purely left-wing phenomenon anymore, either: right-wing students can also take on the mantle of oppression, especially in a university context when right-wing students are the minority. In the United States, can a religious Christian be a victim? What about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? That line of thinking, and the competition to be the bigger victim, can lead to a race to the bottom over who is a victim and who isn’t.

From a professor’s point of view, it takes only one well-meaning but inadvertent comment to end up pilloried. As noted previously, the likely reception of the comment is unknowable, while the accusation can be almost as damning as conviction. In that environment, the optimal solution for someone who values their job is the one Reed’s prof came up with: silence.

Silence around important issues is probably bad, but one doesn’t need elaborate game theory to see why it happens. There is no defense against insensitivity or “triggering.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Haidt write:

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.

I’ve seen the offendedness sweepstakes play out in classrooms. It’s ugly. It’s also impossible to adjudicate different people’s different levels of offendedness because there’s no real standard to compare one person’s level of offense to another’s. I can tell whether a paper is poorly written or well written or whether an argument is well-researched or poorly researched, but I can’t tell whether student x has a better “claim” to victimhood than student y.

The obvious counter to perpetual offendedness is that living in the world requires some level of fortitude and resilience. The flipside to that, however, is that people (including professors) can use “fortitude and resilience” as excuses for being jerks or being deliberately provocative in a non-productive manner.

Still, the current academic climate seems to have swung too far towards the offendedness sweepstakes and too far from fortitude and resilience. But we’re unlikely to see a fortitude coalition form, and even attempting to do such a thing risks the “insensitive” label. So we get more and more offense and less and less thought.

Outside of academia and some media circles none of this matters.

Links: The vile mattress industry, urban change, the ideal marriage, reality, and more!

* Why online mattress companies proliferate; the title is mind because the title of the original is too stupid to repeat.

* “The Heroes of CRISPR,” an incredible story novelistic in detail.

* “60 Years of Urban Change,” or, as Paul Graham put it, “Rather terrifying before and after aerial views of US cities.” The cost of highways is still today underappreciated.

* “The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels.”

* “He taught me that it’s much better to face harsh reality than to close your eyes to it. Once you are aware of the dangers, your chances of survival are much better if you take some risks than if you meekly follow the crowd. That is why I trained myself to look at the dark side.” That’s from a fascinating interview on Europe with George Soros.

* “Poetry used to be performance, not the subject of close textual analysis. The century-old shift from poetry for the ear to poetry for the eye has not been good for poetry.” The most heard “poetry” is pop music, and pop music is performed. Incidentally, in The Lord of the Rings the poetry / songs are all recited rather than read.

* Economics in thrillers and mysteries. Anyone have other recommendations?

* “Seattle Transit Tunneling Is Going Great, and The People Want More.” Headlines rarely seen!

* Howself-driving cars may change cities.

* George’s comment on “Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?”

* “Privilege and inequality in Silicon Valley: Why ‘few successful startup founders grew up desperately poor.’” Note that a startup founder wrote this and it isn’t the usual garbage you’re (legitimately) expecting.

“From Pickup Artist to Pariah” buries the lead

In “From Pickup Artist to Pariah: Jared Rutledge fancied himself a big man of the ‘manosphere.’ But when his online musings about 46 women were exposed, his whole town turned against him,” oddly, the most interesting and perhaps important parts of the article are buried or de-emphasized:

In 2012, he slept with three women; in 2013, 17; in 2014, 22. In manosphere terms, he was spinning plates — keeping multiple casual relationships going at once.

In other words… it worked, at least according to this writer. And:

I met four women at a downtown bar. All were on Jared’s List of Lays. Over cocktails and ramen, the women told me about Jared’s sexual habits, his occasional flakiness, his black-and-white worldview. [. . .] They seemed most troubled by just how fine he had been to date. “I really liked him,” said W. “And that’s what makes me feel so gullible.”

In other words… it worked, at least according to the women interviewed as framed by this writer.

How might a Straussian read “From Pickup Artist to Pariah?” Parts of the article, and not those already quoted, could be inserted directly into Onion stories.

The first sentence of Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World is “Dear Bernard-Henri Lévy, We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Is being contemptible sometimes a sign of status? As BHL implies, the greatest hatred is often reserved for that which might be true.*

In other news, the Wall Street Journal reports today that “Global Temperatures Set Record for Second Straight Year: 2015 was the warmest year world-wide since reliable global record-keeping began in 1880.”

In Julie Klausner’s book, I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated, she writes at the very end, “Around this time of graduation or evolution or whatever you call becoming thirty, I started fending off the guys I didn’t like before I slept with them. It was the first change I noticed in my behavior that really marked my twenties being over.” Maybe Rutledge’s mistake is of tone: Comedians are sometimes forgiven and sometimes thrown into the fire. No one is ever forgiven seriousness.


Houellebecq also writes, “there is in those I admire a tendency toward irresponsibility that I find only too easy to understand.” He is not the first person to admire irresponsibility. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“, Richard Feynman says:

Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility.

Life: Egotism and the powerful sense of self consciousness generates

An egotist is a self-absorbed creature, delighted with himself and ready to tell the world about his enthralling love affair. But an egoist, like Sir John, is a much more serious being, who makes himself, his instincts, his yearnings, and tastes the touchstone of every experience. The world, truly, is his creation. Outwardly he may be courteous, modest, and charming—and certainly when you knew him Sir John was all of these—but beneath the velvet is the steel ; if anything comes along that will not yield to the steel, the steel will retreat from it and ignore its existence. The egotist is all surface; underneath is a pulpy mess and a lot of self-doubt. But the egoist may be yielding and even deferential in things he doesn’t consider important; in anything that touches his core he is remorseless.

—Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy. Does this sound like anyone you know?

The whole Deptford Trilogy is weird but marvelous. It’s the sort of book I shouldn’t like yet reread periodically. It’s utterly against the feeling of most contemporary fiction or even the sort of fiction that was commonly written when it was published yet works. Critics don’t know what to do with it because it’s very good without being flashy, or without tying into many common critical hobbyhorses. It’s the sort of book I’m always hoping someone will recommend to me.

Links: Leases, cars, bikes, energy, the nurse-doctor essay, and Game of Thrones

* If you lease a car today, Tesla will allegedly have an autonomous car by the time that lease expires.

* How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car.

* “Anatomy of Wonder: When I revisited Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, I expected to find formidable scholarship. I didn’t expect to find a literary experience.” Joseph Campbell remains excellent too. him and Frye are both critics who can’t effectively exist in contemporary universities.

* An incredible comment from someone who read “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* NASA: “Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power.”

* Game of Thrones: A Girardian Reading, a much weirder and more interesting piece than you may think. On a sentence-by-sentence level Game of the Thrones is incredibly uneven, as I wrote in 2011.

* “The Arabic gang-rape ‘Taharrush’ phenomenon which sees women surrounded by groups of men in crowds and sexually assaulted… and has now spread to Europe.” Perhaps this is a troll, considering the source. Still, let’s assume for a moment it isn’t: I don’t see “Taharrush” happening in the U.S.: big cities like New York, Chicago, and L.A. have too many cops. Smaller cities have too many armed citizens. In Phoenix, Austin, or Houston one or two guys with pistols would end “Taharrush.” See also “The Islamophobic Case for Open Borders” for many rarely heard views.

* Why clean energy is now expanding even when fossil fuels are cheap.

* More details on the Vanhawks Valour smartbike.

* Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch — Jonathan Gottschall

How many people are willing to admit: “I concluded that I’d been wrong about MMA people, fighters and fans alike?” Admitting to being wrong is a paradoxical show of power: the power to say that you’re weak, rather than pretending to be strong, which only the strong can do. The Professor in the Cage is full of paradox, beginning maybe with the author himself: a cerebral professor who pursues fighting. I get why he does and why he gets the reactions he does. I don’t do MMA but people are surprised that I run and lift. Are those activities in natural opposition to cerebral writers? To anyone in cerebral professions? Not to me, but, evidently, to many.

prof_in_cageA lot guys start MMA because they fear for their own masculinity and want to prove it: “Football captains and bullies don’t need martial arts. They already know they are strong and tough. Guys turn to martial arts when they fear they are weak.” Or, at least, they do in situations—like most of the contemporary Western world—when their physical safety is mostly assured. Much later, in the final chapters, Gottschall says, “half my reason for taking the fight was to try to do a brave thing—to redeem myself, at least in my own eyes, for all the times I’d flinched when I was young.” There may be other possibilities for redemption. Like, say, letting go.

Or channeling your energy in different directions.

The stories of entrepreneurial competition are legion. Gottscahll puts his energy in physical direction, in part because he’s an English professor by day—and a failing one at that. We have certain things in common, Gottschall and me, except I got out earlier, and I haven’t published the books he has. In some ways, though, Gottschall is a warning: How can someone who has done so much interesting work still get no traction in English departments? He could be a cautionary tale in my own warning essay about grad school.

Towards the end of the book Gottschall writes,

I’ve said I took up fighting partly in hopes of getting fired. But that’s only half-true. Becoming a real college professor has been the great ambition of my adult life, and a big part of me is still reluctant to give up on it. In truth, I probably feared being fired as much as I hoped for it.

He also observes that, contrary to what he thought he should do, he finds that “if you train in MMA, it’s hard to stay in the closet about it.” Which may true of any passion or activity that makes you feel most alive. However much you’re supposed to hide it, it’s hard to suppress that instinct. It’s who you are. It makes you slightly evangelical. For Gottschall, too, he finds himself “on crutches, or limping in a walking boot,” which makes MMA fighting particularly hard to ignore. I sometimes reach for metaphors related to lifting and running because they’re handy and relatively easy to understand. They’re also what I know. All of us have stocks of experience and knowledge and that’s part of what colors, filters, or constructs our world.

At base Gottschall is looking for life. In this respect he is like a novelist. He finds it fighting more, maybe, than fucking (or perhaps another book on that subject is yet to emerge). It may not be a mistake that one of James Wood’s books is The Nearest Thing to Life and it in turn discusses novels. Life and life-feeling are tricky to define yet continually sought. Cooperation and competition are perpetually cooperating and competing with each other. In The Professor and the Cage they are physically embodied. That physical embodiment propels the book forward. I don’t think I’ll spoil the book by saying that its denouement is a 47-second fight. In ritualized fighting the journey is the destination.

We find life in many places. Gottschall finds it in the cage.

Other have written about him. “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department: Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career” is interesting throughout. Is it a surprise that three of the most interesting academics in and around English—Gottschall, Camille Paglia, and William Deresiewicz—have such a strained relationship with the rest of the discipline? I don’t have their fortitude or seeming indifference to material possessions. Give me a new iMac and a $14 hipster cocktail stat. More importantly, Paglia’s two-decades-long protest has led to near-zero change. The structure of the system impedes change and will at least until tenure goes away. In the meantime, though, there is life in the cage.

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